Tuesday, Oct 8, 2002

Think and Drink:
Newtonville Books Unites Readers, Writers and Beer

by Josh B. Wardrop / Staff Writer

Author Atul Gawande signs a copy of his book at Newtonville Books, before the Books and Brews crew reconvenes at Karoun.

Having just autographed his last book for the evening, Newton writer Dr. Atul Gawande is standing contentedly by the bar inside the Karoun Restaurant, in Newton, sipping a drink, nibbling on Middle Eastern appetizers and chatting with some of the same people whose book he just signed. An hour ago, the Newton writer was at Newtonville Books, reading from his new book "Complications." At a normal reading, the event would have ended there. But this is "Books and Brews," a series brewed up by Tim Huggins, owner of Newtonville Books. Here, a reading at the Newtonville Books - just a two-minute walk away - is followed up by informal socializing at the Karoun.

"This is great," Gawande enthuses. "It's a lot more fun to have this opportunity to interact with my readers. I've been doing a lot of book signings since 'Complications' came out, and it's very easy to get in that grind of endlessly sitting and signing. This reading series that Tim's organized gives me a chance to be able to answer people's questions with a bit more substance than I can when there's a bunch of people lined up and waiting."

While the casual and friendly atmosphere of the "Books and Brews" series appeals to authors like Gawande, it can be particularly exciting for the readers - many of whom have made the double-dip of Newtonville Books and the Karoun a part of their weekly habit. The free event is usually well-attended.

"What can I say? I feel fortunate to have something like this in Newton," says Harriet Swire, a Newton resident who estimates that she's been to about 30 of the "Books and Brews" readings (many of them at the now-defunct Newtonville Times) over the last 18 months. "This series gives us readers a chance to have that real intimacy with the authors - and the authors have always ended up being really friendly and approachable."

Her friend Carole Smith, also of Newton, agrees. "We've met authors' parents, spouses, children at these events."

"And we've had a chance to get to know a lot of our neighbors," says Swire. "There are always new people showing up at these readings, but you've also got your regulars - there's probably a good dozen people who seem to be regulars," she says, adding that she would consider herself one of them.

According to Huggins, that sort of building of social connections was the main reason he started "Books and Brews." "That's exactly why I did it. There are people who've met and become friends through this series," he says. "It was my ideal goal to try and build a community between literature lovers - I figure if you give them a room full of literary-minded people in a fun space, provide some good food and drink ... things will take care of themselves from there."

Another Newton resident, Debra Atwood, says that she's stopped attending readings at other area bookstores because the atmosphere at Newtonville Books and the "Books and Brews" series is such a refreshing change. "The people who work in the bookstore, and who run it, genuinely seem to be interested in people. And, to have great social and intellectual events like this - right here in Newton, in the middle of the week - is just wonderful. Who needs to go to Harvard Square?"

Newtonville is a small bookstore located in the Walnut Street storefront that housed Newtonville Fabrics for nearly 50 years. Huggins has spent the last six years working on ways to keep the independent bookstore ideal alive in Newton. And getting creative with that time-honored bookstore staple, the in-store reading, has been a big help.

"My goal with Newtonville Books has always been to elevate the experience of book-buying for customers," says Huggins, who moved to Newton from Mississippi in 1996 to attend grad school. "And, when I first start getting authors to come in or book readings, I realized my favorite part of the experience was to sit down with the writers, after the reading was over, drink a beer or two and talk about their work. Eventually, it occurred to me that the customers might enjoy doing the same thing, and that the authors might enjoy having a chance to really talk to their fans."

That simple concept was the beginning of "Books and Brews." Since its inception more than four years ago, "Books and Brews" has boasted visits from both up-and-coming and established authors like Steve Almond, Jill McCorkle, Alistair McLeod and many more.

"Part of the fun of reading, or being a bookseller, is that thrill you get from discovering new writers and books," says Huggins. "With 'Books and Brews,' we give people a chance to really feel a part of that."

Folks with a healthy interest in books and music, however, may find themselves traveling to Cambridge between now and Nov. 12 to enjoy another of Huggins' brainstorms - the "Earfull" series taking place at the Kendall Cafe. This series - started last year in collaboration between Huggins at Q Division recording studio of Somerville - consists of weekly evenings that combine readings by authors like Dennis Lehane, Tom Perrotta and Laura Zigman with musical performances by well-known local rockers such as Tanya Donnelly, Buffalo Tom and Todd Thibaud.

"I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself to come up with something creative for readers to enjoy. I do feel I have to work harder to provide a good experience for the readers," says Huggins. "In Boston, I feel there's three or four bookstores that do really great events for their readers. And I think, at this point, that I'm among that group."

For more information about Newtonville Books and the "Books and Brews" series, call 617-244-6619 or visit www.newtonvillebooks.com. For more information about the Earfull series, including a complete schedule of featured authors and musicians, visit www.earfull.org.

Earfull (Kendall Cafe)
Oct. 15 - Authors: Jennifer Egan, Jennifer Belle; musicians: Hem, Aaron Lippert
Oct. 22 - Authors: Tom Perrotta, Nani Power; musicians: Buffalo Tom, The Mayflowers
Oct. 29 - Authors: Nick McDonell, Tristan Egolf; musicians: Jake Brennan & The Confidence Men, Todd Thibaud
Nov. 5 - Authors: Elizabeth Benedict & Jen Trynin; musicians: Tanya Donnelly, Blake Hazard
Nov. 12 - Authors: Dan Zevin & Laura Zigman; musicians: Loveless, Jack Drag

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